Monday, December 31, 2012

Resolution roundup

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I've never been one to make New Year's resolutions.  It has always seemed to me that if there's something you need to do or change then you just do or change it.  No matter what month of the year it is.  And if you have to think about what resolution to form for the new year--i.e., if it's not glaringly obvious--then chances are you are doing pretty well, and you should just carry on.  But I have to admit that there is something about the dawning of a new year that prods some people into action, into committing themselves to doing or changing what they've long known they should.  And that, especially if they follow through, is certainly a positive thing.   That was me last year around this time, when I made the sudden resolution to write creatively every single day of the year 2012.  Not that I wasn't consistent and dedicated in my writing before.  I talk to my students all the time about making writing a
habit--and I've blogged about this--and for much of my writing life this has more or less meant getting up early on weekdays and writing before the rest of the house wakes and life must begin.  Of course, there were always days when the burden of grading student papers was simply too great, and I had to sacrifice my writing time to that duty.  And there were the days when I traveled to conferences: crazy busy affairs in which once the day starts there is barely any down time to be found.   There were other days when I was visiting out-of-town family and didn't feel the requirement to push myself to the notebook or the computer.   And then there weekends when I afforded my creative brain some time off.  Still and all, I was living the message.  At least I thought so until some visiting writers came to my campus who indicated that working writers should literally write every day.   Even on a beach vacation.  Even on Christmas.  Even if you travel to a conference!  One of these writers, Heather Sellers, in her book Chapter After Chapter frames the idea this way: Even if you are on leave of absence from your home you do not take a leave of absence from your book.  It might just mean working on it a bit differently.  You could bring a few chapters with you to line edit.  Or you could exchange novels-in-progress with another writer, and you agree to read each other's work while you're away.  In that way, your book keeps getting worked on even if you are not at your writing desk and you are not the one working on it.

Because I was more or less living the message already, for several years I ignored the every day mandate and kept working the same way I always had.   (And in point of fact, I know that many successful writers do not write literally every day, even though they all make writing a habit.)  Then, when I was on sabbatical in 2009, I added a sixth day, Sunday, to my writing week.  When I got off sabbatical I decided to hold on to that Sunday work session.  And then last year, at the end of December, in what was a quick, unanticipated decision, I committed myself to going all the way.  Just for one year--no matter where I was or what else I had to do--I would write creatively every single day.  Even if that meant for only 5 minutes.  Of course this begs the question as to what I mean by "writing creatively."  I knew what I meant, so I didn't actively formulate guidelines--they were innate--but for the sake of this post I'll tell you what those innate guidelines were.  If I composed original fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry or plays, that (of course) counted.  If I revised or edited fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, or plays, that counted. If I wrote in a journal--and by this I mean the kind of descriptive, impressionistic, and exploratory journal one might keep on an overseas trip, as opposed to the "It's Tuesday, and I just had leftover fajitas for lunch" kind of journal--that counted.  And that, friends, was pretty much it.  Many other activites, even if they were related to my writing, did not count.  Writing a blog post did not count.  Commenting on other people's blog posts did not count.  Writing queries to agents and publishers did not count.  Conducting research for a story or novel, unless I carried this out during an active writing session, did not count.  Writing letters or emails--no matter to whom and about what--did not count.  Composing a letter-to-the-editor in response to something I read in a newspaper or magazine did not count.  Writing critiques of my students' creative work or of a friend's creative work did not count.   In fact, all the writing I do for my job as a university professor--grant proposals, committee reports, letters of recommendation, syllabi, assignment instructions--most definitely did not count!  (Don't get me wrong; I belong the school that says all writing is creative--or has the potential to be--but for my New Year's resolution to accomplish what it was meant to accomplish, I had to stay true to my innately understood definition.)

So how did it turn out?  Well, I'm happy to report, on this last day of 2012, that I did it!  I wrote creatively every single day.  And though I took several trips this year, the only one that truly challenged my resolution was my March trip to the madness of the AWP conference in Chicago.   Part of the difficulty there was that I also blogged every day from the conference.  There were a couple days at AWP when I logged my creative writing time only by composing observational haiku during down moments at the book fair table I was manning for Toad Suck Review.  Those haiku may not be thunderous literature, but they kept my creative brain engaged.  More importantly, I enjoyed doing them.  During family trips--such as our east coast marathon in July and a Thanksgiving trip to Lowell, Arkansas--I kept to the resolution by simply doing what I always do: getting up before everybody else, starting a pot of coffee, and then writing.  I can't know how much more I wrote because of my resolution--quantity really wasn't the point--but I did write a lot.  I composed many many short stories--some very brief, some rather long; I composed a series of long poems (because I taught a course on the Long Poem during the spring semester), some of which I've arranged into a chapbook; I wrote one original play and adapted a short story I wrote into another;  I wrote some creative nonfiction; I carried out substantial new edits on my story collection, Island Fog, a thematically-unified book in which all the stories are set in Nantucket Island, Massachusetts; I gathered together and edited other stories of mine for a different collection (most of those stories being set in the south) that I sent off to a contest just two weeks ago; I substantially edited and revised (once again) my Van Gogh novel as well as the (much shorter) novel that I wrote after it; and, as of last count this morning, I've written the first 215 pages of a semi-comic, wildly braided novel that I'm having a good time with--even if I'm not 100% sure where it's going.  How much of all this writing will eventually appear in print I can't say.  But I can say that because of the resolution, and because of sticking to it, I've felt more intimately engaged with my writing life this year than ever before.  And that's precisely what the write-every-day mandate is about.  I highly recommend it--at least for one year!

So what about next year?  Let me get back to you about that.  ; )

Reading report: I've been enjoying a couple books so far during this Christmas holiday.  The first was sent to me by a booking agent for writers in the hopes that UCA would want to invite his client.  I put it aside for weeks and then decided on a whim to read it during Winter Break.  It's called Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness (2011) by Alexandra Fuller, the author of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (2003).  The latter was her memoir about growing up in Africa, so with this latest volume Fuller decided to chronicle her mother's story of having grown up in Africa.   It's a gem of a book, carefully researched and composed, so much so that she is able to convincingly narrate scenes that happened between her parents and others long before she was born.  While it's an extremely personal and familial book, it also presents a superb picture of central Africa and the changes that occurred there between the 1940s and the 2000s.  Her book reminds me that perhaps the only way to truthfully tell history is to tell the history of individual people who experience it.  Anything else skirts dangerously close to propaganda.  It's a fantastic, engaging read.

After finishing Fuller's volume, I started on Canada (2012) by Richard Ford.   All I can say about this one is that I think it's the best Richard Ford novel I've ever read, which is saying a lot given how many he has written and their consistently high quality.  The opening lines: "First I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed.  Then about the murders, which happened later." If this sounds like an interesting premise for a novel--it is.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Rams and oxen

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In my more itinerant years, when I worked at a variety of book stores (and other places), I would pass a slow moment reading into different arcane subjects.  There was rarely free time enough to read deeply into any volume or into any actually valuable literature, so I tended to skim through lighter fare.  I hesitate to admit, but will anyway, that astrology books were part of the mix.  I found them entertaining despite the fact that descriptions of those born under my own "sun sign" were, well, let's say condescending, to put it nicely.  Incriminating is more like it.  More importantly, not at all relevant to the person I knew walking around inside my body.  Something was fundamentally "off."  And I guess this isn't so surprising.  Categorizing millions of people according to a twelve category system is really no different, and about as accurate, as racial profiling, ethnic stereotyping, or reiterating regional cliches.  The seeming certainty of a stereotype always dissolves when it comes up against the complexity of the individual person.  Always.   Which, coincidentally, is why I and so many other writing teachers, constantly advise my students to run from personality cliches as fast their typing fingers can move them.  (By the way, I know enough to know that a committed astrology-believer would tell me that not only the sun sign but one's entire astrological "chart" is what defines one, but that's a level of arcana I simply refuse to descend to for this post.)  Despite feeling that western astrology missed the mark in my case, I would continue now and again for entertainment's sake to look into New Age subjects, albeit having been raised Roman Catholic it was impossible for me to take any of them very seriously.  At some point, I don't remember when, I found out that the Chinese had their own astrological system, a far older and more entrenched structure than even western astrology.  I found out that the year I was born, according to the Chinese calendar, was a year of the Ox.  Reading into the traits of my fellow Oxen, I found these characteristics: deliberate, patient, serious, methodical, introverted, goal-oriented, having a distant air but affectionate with friends and family, protective, demonstrating great stamina, deriving special pleasure in work well done.  Well, I thought, now that's someone I recognize.  Maybe the Chinese were on to something!

I've long known Van Gogh's birthdate: March 30, 1853.  Thus I've also long known that he's an Aries according to western astrology.  Arians are the Rams of the western zodiac.  To be honest, many of the stereotypical Arian traits do fit Van Gogh.  He certainly was courageous.  He was also headstrong, a battler, someone who liked to lead and not follow.  He had an extraordinary amount of energy, along with a quick temper, and never backed down from a good argument.  If it's true, as I've read, that Arians refuse to submit to directions the point of which they do not see, then, yes, Van Gogh can admittedly act as a poster child for western astrology, if anyone cares to use him in that way.  As true as those traits are--and certainly they are the ones that most people probably think of when they think of the famously independent, passionate Van Gogh--I'm not sure those are the traits of the man that most intrigue me or to which I found myself connecting while I composed my Van Gogh novel.  There was a lot more to him than just a passionate, daring, argumentative fellow.  Plenty of passionate, daring, argumentative people get exactly nowhere in life.  They misdirect their passions; they fritter away their energy and their talents in debating rather than doing.  They don't get started on or stick with what they need to start on and stick with.  Something, and it may simply be a new project, always distracts them.   That was not Van Gogh.  When I think of the man, what I think of first isn't so much his passion as his awesome capacity for hard work.  I mean hours and hours and hours of unrelenting work under physically difficult conditions.  I also think of a man who seemed to intuitively know, from the first second he decided to be an artist, exactly how much labor, how much training, how much simple drudgery would be required of him to get from point A (i.e., enthusiastic amateur) to point B (accomplished professional).  I've written about this before on this blog.  As soon as Van Gogh knew he wanted to be artist--really wanted it; and not just to draw (which he'd done in an idle way for most of his life) but to be able to produce work that was actually masterful--he signed the dotted line, if you will; he committed himself to the necessary drudgery.  He put his shoulder to the wheel and for the next ten years never really lifted it despite a series of upheavals in his personal life.  Whatever he suffered through as a person, the work never stopped.  Never.   And as erratic and even unlikeable as he may seemed to some who knew him, he was remarkably deliberate in his approach to his art.  After all, he did nothing but draw for many years before he allowed himself to paint with oils.  Part of this was financial--paint was rather dear--but mostly it was because he believed, as a matter of principal, that artists needed to train their hand before their brush could be successful.

It came as no surprise when a couple of weeks ago--in a idle moment during end-of-the-semester grading--I checked to see where Van Gogh's birthday fit in the Chinese astrological calendar and discovered that he too was an Ox.  Ah, I thought, now I understand why I understand you.  You're not just a hardheaded Ram; you're a broad-shouldered ox.  I aslo knew why all of the mad genius-emotional-painter stereotypes of Van Gogh--ruthlessly exploited in the 1954 movie Lust for Life--strike me, and have always struck me, as being false.  Or at least incomplete.  Incriminating, let's say.  And unless someone is a criminal, describing them in ways that are incriminating can never be fair--or true.

Lagniappe 1: In a post from a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I'd been interviewed by a former student.  One of her questions I didn't bring up in my post, but I think I should have.  The question was simple enough: Which writers inspire you?  I answered rather jauntily, if also honestly, that at this point in my writing life I get all the inspiration I need from an alarm clock and a mug of coffee.  But, I went on to say, if the question really is "Do I ever learn anything from other writers, or see certain structures in their work that I'd like to steal?"then the answer of course is yes.  Then something else occurred to me.  I did find genuinely inspring--if also disturbing--a nonfiction book that my brother lent me over Thanksgiving.  So I recommended it to my former student, and I'm officially recommending it to all of you now.  It's called Escape from Camp 14, and it details the life of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person to ever escape from a camp for political prisoners in North Korea.   Shin was actually born in the camp, and what he suffered through growing up in that place was truly harrowing, not the least which was to see his mother hanged and his brother shot.  (Perhaps the most harrowing fact of all is that the camp, and many others like it, still exists inside North Korea.) Today Shin Dong-hyuk splits his time between the U.S. and Seoul.  If I'm ever in need of inspiration to keep going--whether that be in writing or anything else--despite painful obstacles, I need look no further than his story.

Lagniappe 2: Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Glass in finger

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A few months ago, I picked up a cracked drinking glass that was sitting in our kitchen sink.  Thinking I was looking at a meandering stain, and wanting to get rid of it,  I ran my finger over the crack.  I know.  Bad idea.  Not only was my finger instantly severed, but several slivers of glass embedded themselves inside.  I didn't even realize they were there (well, maybe I suspected it) until the wound closed and and yet my finger remained swollen.  Too, I felt pain if I grabbed anything with my left hand.  Like a door handle.  Or a briefcase.  Or a Sharpie.  I took to wearing a band aid on the supposedly healed finger until I realized this foolishness had to end.  It required two different trips, and two different doctors, and twice having my finger cut into with a scalpel, to get out all the pieces.  For a while, on the second trip, it looked a little dicey.  The doctor said I had "really good blood flow" to my fingers, but he worried that this would make it hard for him to find the stubborn, remaining sliver.  (From the x-ray he knew it was there.)  Blood flow or not, after making the incision he reached in with tweezers and in a matter of seconds pulled out that piece of glass.  I could not believe how big it was. "I'm surprised my finger healed over with that thing inside," I said.  He assured me this was perfectly normal.  The body is really good at closing itself off, he said.  I'd be shocked, he said, at what can remain inside a body after it heals.

Something about the doctor's statement stayed with me, kept tumbling through my mind.  Being a writer, I naturally began thinking of it as a metaphor.  The old adage is that time heals all wounds.  I think many of us can attest to the fact that this is not at all true, at least in terms of emotional pain, which is exactly the kind of pain the adage speaks to.  What happens is that the body heals over and the wound (or, for the sake of my metaphor, the piece of glass) remains inside.  With the cut no longer open and the body no longer at risk for infection, it's almost possible to pretend the glass isn't there; it's almost possible to stop feeling it; it's perfectly possible that no one you know will have any inkling of its existence.  But it does exist; it's only disguised.  And because it does exist, the glass can jab at just the right, bad moment, under just the right kind of pressure, when certain memories rise up as fresh and humiliating or stabbing as if the events happened only the day before.  "Whoa," you  think, "where did that come from?"  The answer is easy: It came from inside you, where the glass has been this whole time, pressing constantly if subtly against a nerve.  I think it's not an exaggeration to say that every single person on the planet carries these slivers of glass inside the fingers of their souls.  Some slivers are just bigger than others. Some slivers cause more pain.  And, unfortunately, some people choose to take their pain out on others, thus inserting new pieces of glasses into other impressionable souls.  Most of us, I imagine, see the slivers of glass as strictly our own problem; we would rather not burden any one else with them.  In fact, we would rather just pretend our fingers never got cut in the first place, because, after all, most of the time that's how it feels.

After tricking out this metaphor in my mind, I naturally thought of Van Gogh, that infamously combustible bundle of nerves, determination, and passion.  There were several slivers of glasses that inserted themselves into his metaphorical fingers and of which he never got free.  It's easy to think of the various women with whom he became tragically obsessed: a pretty young Englishwoman in London named Ursula Loyer; his cousin Kee--a widow and single mother when Vincent fell hard for her; most of all Sien, the former prostitute with whom he lived for a year and a half in The Hague (and the model for his drawing "Sorrow").  The first two woman quickly rejected him, while his relationship with Sien turned, over the course of many months, from near perfect domestic bliss to a tense standoff between two clearly mismatched souls.  Eventually, Van Gogh gave up all hope of marrying, and in fact never did, a regret he never got over.  But as bad as all that might sound, I don't think his relationship with any of these women ever became the defining sliver of glass in his finger.  Neither did his relationship with his brother Theo, the person to whom he sent so many of his letters: some angry, some pleading, some optimistic, some merely informative, some soaked with resentment.  No, in the end, Vincent was quite at peace with his brother.

The biggest piece of glass--and perhaps the only true one--was his father, the Reverend Theodorus Van Gogh.  That his father could never appreciate or perhaps really accept Vincent's artistic ambitions is an understatement; but on the other hand, Vincent never quite realized--or admitted to--the extent to which he tried his father's patience and the extent to which his father finally did about as much as he possibly could and bent about as far as he was temperamentally able.  To Vincent, Theodorus forever remained the man who threw him out of his house on Christmas Day, 1881--an action that in practical terms made Vincent's life much harder--and the man who always seemed to regard his son as someone vaguely disreputable and more or less a complete failure. The thing is, this is exactly how most people--especially people who were not artists--saw Vincent as well.  But it matters more, I suppose, when such a condescending viewpoint is one's own father's.  And I think the root cause of Vincent's disappointment--what made his father's view so very painful for him--was his abiding and innate love for the man.  After all, for several years of his younger life--and I don't mind his childhood; I mean his twenties--Vincent admired his father over anyone else.  His father's life as minister of the gospel was precisely what Vincent aspired to.  And thus the pain doubled when he was faced with his father's disapproval.  It became actually biting.  Vincent's admiration soured to resentment of, and even loathing for, the man.  It's been said by many commentators that Van Gogh's life after  Theodorus died in 1885 was merely a matter of searching for a replacement father figure.  I have previously discussed that idea in this blog, so I won't rehash it here. What I will say is that it's easy to transcribe this emotional set of facts with my bloody new metaphor.  Theodorus--both the idea of the man and the factual memory of him--became for Vincent the single largest sliver of glass inside his body, jabbing ruthlessly on an inner nerve, creating a pain that propelled him into several other encounters, encounters that each in their own way failed and perhaps had to.  Because the true source of the pain could never be relieved.  There wasn't a doctor alive capable of removing a piece of glass that large.

Afterword: Although it's being put up today, I composed this post prior to the events that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday, December 14, 2012.  It's sad for me to realize that we've just witnessed a horrific example of a clearly disturbed person taking out his pain on others.  I'm afraid that for those directly affected, immeasurbly large pieces of glass have been inserted into their souls.  Let's do more than keep them in our thoughts; let them motivate us to contstructive action.  I'm heartened by the fact that in the last two days, constructive dialogue about what that action might be has already begun.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Exploiting the squishy

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A former student interviewed me via email for a graduate school assignment last week.  She was supposed to contact three working writers and ask them questions about their processes.  It's an interesting  idea for an assignment, and I was honored to be asked.  Since this student reads my blog, she focused her questions--and they were good ones--on the making of my Van Gogh novel.  Inevitably I found myself not only talking about my own specific work habits but discussing the ontology of historical fiction.  What is it about this form that makes everyone so eager to define and proscribe?  Maybe it's the notion that history is beyond one's own self--that no individual owns history-- or at least one shouldn't be allowed to, even for the sake of writing a novel.  History, some argue, must remain unassailable.  I know this is the approach that Hilary Mantel takes.  She's spoken quite scornfully of those who would dare play with historical fact for the sake of dramatized presentation.  (For example, she detested The Tudors.  More than detested.  She mocked it.  Having never seen the thing, I can't argue with her.)  For Mantel, a fond reader of history, someone indeed who came to writing because of her love for reading history, the first and abiding requirement for the writer of historical fiction is to get the history precisely right.  Every fact that is presented in a novel must be verifiably drawn from history.  In Mantel's mind--and about this she's right--the real facts of history often suggest colorful possibilites and intriguing personal quirks that writers can exploit.  So why abandon them?  Okay, fair enough.  But finally I've decided that her approach sounds a bit too much like a straitjacket.  Doesn't it force a writer to choose as his subjects highly chronicled personages, like Henry VIII and his court, because those are exactly the kinds of people about which facts are readily available?  Surely other kinds of people are worthy of treatment in historical novels, yes? Not to knock the achievement of Wolf Hall, but I'm not sure the world really needed another book about Henry VIII, did it?  (For the uninitiated, Wolf Hall is a serious and brilliant novel that details Henry's attempts to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.  The point of view character in the novel, Thomas Cromwell, is quite an intriguing man.  But I suggest not reading Wolf Hall over a stretch of weeks.   It's rather coldly narrated, and there is a dizzying number of characters to keep track of.  Put it down, and you might not remember who they are the next time you pick it up.  It's absolutely worth sticking with until the end, but it will try your patience.)

I guess here's my fundamental issue with the "facts only" approach: "Facts only" is the approach biographers must necessarily take.  But writing a historical novel is nothing like writing a biography.  I was about to write off Mantel as a schoolmarmish guadian of the literal until I heard her interviewed recently on the radio.  She said something that caught my attention.  Historical fiction must be based on the factual she said once again, but then she added that it was between the facts that the novel really happens.  No matter how many facts an author assembles there will be "squishy" areas in which the writer's imagination can and must operate.  Well, hallelujah, I thought.  That's exactly it.  That's the business of dramatization.  You enter with your imagination what can only be explored with the imagination--namely the inner person--and you do your best to make him or her real.  And that's true of any kind of fiction.  And it's also why the protagonists of well-writtten historical novels feel more vivid to me than the subjects of biographies.   Biographies too often strike me as being nothing but an assemby of data, as if a record of jobs held, books produced, and places lived is enough to capture a person's identity, the real him or her.  But it's not.  It never will be.  I've waded through thick biographies, traversed a whole life,  and come out the other end not feeling as if I knew the subject any better than before I started reading.  And so here in essence is what I told my former student: The reseach I carried out on the Van Gogh book, substantial as it was, certainly suggested many scenes to me and a variety of people to depict, but the actual writing of the scenes was the same act of the imagination as with any of my other fictions, because I had to not just report but see through.  I had to be a bit of a mind reader.  I had to know my protagonist not from the outside in but the inside out.  And that means entering countless "squishy" areas and making my own decisions, from the details of what a room looked like, to what was precisely said (and how) in a given conversation to how badly a moment of betrayal stung.

And here's the other "secret" about the historical fiction process that I shared with my student.  While you do as much research as possible, enough to feel like you "know" your subject, to see through his eyes in the immediacy of a dramatized moment part of yourself has to be inside that subject.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that in my novel  I merely pose myself in nineteenth century dress.  I certainly was trying to capture what it felt like to be the actual Vincent Van Gogh, to live that actual life.  But it's impossible to really feel grounded inside another character, to bring to him the right amount of empathy, without extending some of yourself into the character.  So, yes, there's a piece of undercover me in the Van Gogh of my novel.  How much?  That is something you can't really quantify.  And, here's my point, it's part of the normal alchemy of fiction writing.  It is in no way unique to historical fiction writing.  After all, writers say constantly that there is a piece of themselves in every character they write.  And that's all I'm saying here.  The same is true if one's character is a world famous man about whom scores of biographies and several novels have already been written.  It's still the same process.  You have to enter a squishy, indeterminate space; then you exploit the freedom of that space by forging a kind of union between yourself and the historical person.  The result of the union is the protagonist of a novel.  I'm confident this is just as much true of Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell as it is of my Vincent Van Gogh.  And because that protagonist is a character--and not just an array of facts--he breathes and moves and affects people in way no subject of any bigography ever can.  And so maybe that means he's actually more real.

Monday, December 3, 2012

True protection

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Political blogger Heather Parton, who writes under the name "Digby" for her blog Hullabaloo, visited my campus a couple weeks ago, soon after the election.  Parton discovered her passion for blogging almost by accident, but is now one of those rare few who make a living solely through that work.  She discussed many interesting subjects during her visit, including the experience of "coming out" as a woman at a blogging conference to which she was an invited guest.  (Apparently, because her pen name didn't give her gender away, everyone had assumed she was male.  The reactions to the real Digby, she reported, were a bit odd and fairly disappointing for this day and age.)  During her public reading--at which she read some of her favorite posts to a mixed group of students, faculty, and local
residents--I noticed that some of the pieces were surprisingly long.  The next day, in a talk with a small group of students, she broached this subject.  She explained that she got into blogging in the very early days, and of course with no training or particular guidance.  She said that friends who are quite serious and studious about the art form (and I agree that it is one), keep telling her that she has to keep her posts to a paragraph or two.  This, they explain, is the professional "rule."  While she appreciates their advice and concern, basically she ignores it.  Not that all of her posts are long.  Some are quite short.  (She updates her blog several times a day and tweets frequently.)   But she says that certain subjects, certain passions simply move her to write at length.  She's not FOX news, after all.  Or the AP wire.  She's not a bottom-of-the-screen news crawl.  She's a person making personal commentary.  And she sees no point in not being true to what she has to say.  She told the students she has resigned herself to being a "long form blogger"if that's what it takes.  As you can imagine, it was heartening for me to hear such comments.  As blog posts go, some of mine are ridiculously long, and all I can say is thank you readers for your patience.  I do hope that by limiting myself to once-a-week posts the length of any given post is not too offputting.  Or perhaps that's simply an excuse.  It's true that writing, and perhaps especially blog writing, has to come out of who you are; whether you like it or not, it's a revelation of who you are.   And I'm someone who has "written long" my whole life.  Tough to fence myself in in a platform that's my own, so to speak.  (But believe me, I try to make every sentence count.)  Thanks to Heather Parton for extending her "permission" for the longer posts.  I'd be curious if anyone has thoughts on the "long form blogging" phenomenon.  Is there a better way to handle this animal?

                                                                       *  *  *

This next topic is related to the above discussion, if somewhat tangentially.  In nonfiction class this week, the students were saluting two classmates for writing about rather personal  and potentially embarrassing subjects.  I seconded the students' applause and reiterated to them one of my favorite all-time writing quotes.  It comes from nonfiction writer Terry Tempest Williams: "Nakedness is our shield.  You can't protect yourself anyway, so you might as well tell the truth." Indeed, what Williams gets at is that the willingness to be open in our art becomes its own protection.  We're not simply exposed; we're protected because of our exposure, counterintuitive as that might seem.  The best example I can think of in this regard is the poet Allen Ginsburg.  In the extremely homophobic America of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, Ginsburg went around essentially unfettered and unharrassed, and for one reason only: He expressed, without apology, in both his poetry and his life, exactly who and what he was, and thus earned a kind of grudging respect from those who otherwise would have despised and attacked him.  Again, we're back to Parton's subject of remaining true to who you are.  But Williams's quote speaks to me in other ways too.  Finally it comes down to reverencing the art above everything else, even concerns about protection.  As I said to the class the other day, when you sign the mythical Writer Contract with your life's blood, you are agreeing that the art matters more than anything.  So when it comes down to a choice between your own protection and what the work of art demands, you give in to the work of art.  I really can't see any other choice an artist can make.  Of course, this is not an easy thing to do in practice.  It can take an inordinate dose of courage; and I think for the students, early in their writing careers, their emotional sensors so wide open and feeling so watched by their peers, it's a courage that amounts to craziness.  I do hope for their own sake as well as the sake of their art they eventually find it.  (Courage, that is; not craziness.)

For my own inspiration to courage, I need look no further than the man who is the subject of my historical novel.  Van Gogh, for all his personal quirks and dubious life decisions, rarely if ever made a misguided or callow decision about his art.   When he finally, after several false professional starts, committed himself to becoming an artist, it is as if he had an immediate and permanent fix on exactly what he needed to do--and what he would need to give up--to accomplish his goal.  He understood the weaknesses in his talent and attacked those weaknesses through incredibly hard work and a deliberate, self-imposed, program of study.  He literally never wavered in his commitment to painting, even if that meant imposing on siblings, on parents, on friends.  Even if that meant denying himself many various comforts and contentments.  With a kind of autistic bullheadness (see my earlier post about this) and social clumsiness, he gave to each piece of art whatever it needed, paying for that out of his own life.  Admittedly, for this reason, his life was in many ways a sad one.  His romantic life was an unqualified disaster.  And of course (unless you believe the newfangled story put forth in a recent biography--I don't--that he was shot by goofing teenagers in Auvers-sur-oise) he apparently ended that life with his own hand.  Yet, at the same time, Van Gogh has never struck me as a "sad case." That's not how I regard him and not how I try to portray him in my book.  Or at least not only how I portray him.  The man lived ferociously.  He lived with fire and with insight and with risk.  He accomplished much in a relatively short amount of time.  Van Gogh becoming an artist was the longest of all long shots.  Van Gogh becoming internationally famous and universally revered was next to impossible.  (Those who knew him personally would have been astounded at the idea.)  And yet he pulled it off.  For one reason only: He signed the contract with his life's blood and was willing to live by its terms.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Boston and London

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2013 promises to be an exciting year of conferencing for me.  It starts in March, as I head to Boston for the annual mammoth necessary insanity of the AWP Conference.   Boston, of course, is one of the great heritage cities of the United States and has the added benefit of being the hometown of my oldest sister.  I'll be wearing two hats at AWP this year.  I'll be there to represent Toad Suck Review, of which I am currently the associate editor, as we share our brand new issue #3 with the world.  (See my previous post for more commentary about this.)  But I will also be speaking on a panel that addresses the subject of novel writing workshops.  Such workshops are a relatively new, but exciting, development in the world of creative writing instruction.  For decades the short story form has dominated fiction workshop activities, and basically for one reason: a class can easily read in advance and discuss in one class period an entire short story (or two or three).  It's a manageable sized bite of work to prepare and process.  Now I adore the short story form--I really do--but it's a fact that most fiction-writers-in-training have their eyes on writing novels eventually (or immediately), and it's also true that novels are typically preferred over story collections in the eyes of publishers.  Most of all it's true that learning to write a successful short story does not really train one to write a successful novel.   They are very different animals.  So what, as creative writing teachers, do we do about this? Do we open up our regular workshop class to both novels and stories?  Or do we create separate classes just for novel writers?  And if the answer to that is yes, can we ask students to write a whole novel in a single semster's time?  Do we expect the whole class to read it?  How do we workshop it?  Does a teacher possibly have time to read 15 or 20 student novels over the course of a semester or at the end of the semester?  These are good, pressing questions, and different teachers--myself included--have come up with their own answers to them.  What we should not and cannot do is fail to encourage our students in their pursuit of longer forms.  That would be a disservice.  By happy fortune, I will again be teaching my Novel Writing course next semester--to a mixed group of graduate and undergraduate students--and therefore I will be able to bring my latest news, and my latest experiences, to the panel discussion.  I'm really looking foward to it.

The wanderings continue this summer when I head off to another of the world's leading cities for the Great Writing Conference, held June 29-30 at the University of London, Imperial College.   The brainchild of Australian Graeme Harper--who studied, wrote, taught, and administered in the UK for decades and does so now in the United
States--Great Writing is in its fifteenth year and going strong.  Without question it is the most important creative writing conference in the United Kingdom and arguably the second most important in the world.  Writers and teachers from virtually every part of the Anglophone world participate.  I submitted both a proposal for a critical presentation--on historical fiction (of course)--and a proposal for a creative presentation.  Graeme later informed me that the selection committee liked both proposals and accepted both, but I had to choose to present one or the other.  As a creative writer, it's my first instinct and my first pleasure to read from my own fiction, so that's what I've decided to do.  I will read from a collection of short stories--half historical and half contemporary in nature--that are all set on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts.  Nantucket is a hisorically fascinating and physically beautiful place, a piece of the United States but at the same time--in rather fundamental matters of personality--not really.  I can't know how many in the audience will have ever been there, but it doesn't really matter.  My job is to bring the island to them.

What an honor to have the chance to speak at both Great Writing and its American predecessor in the same year.  In many ways, Great Writing is a superior experience to the manic, crazy-busy, bacchanalian, writers-on-steroids entity that is AWP.  At Great Writing, the papers seem a tad more thoughtful, the audiences a bit more attentive, and the discussions between sessions more relaxed and more probing.  (Because more time is afforded for them.)  It's a very nourishing conference, and I've missed it.   I last attended Great Writing in 2007, when it was held in Bangor, Wales; the year before that I attended my first Great Writing in Portsmouth.  Both Bangor and Portsmouth are quietly charming locations, cities I was quite glad to get to know.  But it is certainly hard to beat London as a site for a major international conference.  We won't quite stop traffic like the Olympics did, but I like to think that, for a few days at least, Great Writing will something real to the cultural life of the capital.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Waiting for the Toad

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One of the more pleasant of my many duties at the University of Central Arkansas is to serve as Associate Editor of Toad Suck Review, our national--and international--literary magazine.  (The journal is named after a place in central Arkansas, but we publish writers from everywhere.)  It's an especially pleasant time now as we read over and put final edits on the latest issue we have assembled, our third.   As I see all at once what took chief editor Mark Spitzer and me many months to put together piece by piece, I cannot help but feel proud.  I am struck by the quality and daring of the work, a solid portion of which came to us in our gmail inbox from writers we had never heard of.  Little miracles just delivered to us out of the blue.  It's one of the most exciting aspects of working on a literary journal.  Some of these writers are Arkansans, but most of them are not.  Most have never visited our state; some have never visited our country.  Yet as I look over the magazine I see that in every genre we publish--eco-literature, Arkana, short fiction, poetry, translations, criticism--sterling work came to us from these previously unknown sources.  Just as a small example of what I mean I offer you a taste of Georgian poet Zviad Ratiani, whose lyrical, existentialist musings were sent to us by his translators, Dailila Gogia and Timothy Kercher:

     And take me now to Rome, I say to my life,
     my snickering life.

     I suppose I couldn't quite believe that the world really existed,
     that those countries, cities, waterfalls, islands,
     really existed,

    so, when I found myself somewhere I'd never been before
    for the first, second, third times,
    I felt altogether embarrassed, disappointed,

    disappointed with both the world and myself,
    yet more with the world since I had expected more of it,
    while it turned out to be what and only as
    it should have been.  That is,
    besides being real.

Imagine just finding that one day in your inbox.  TSR debuts at the AWP Conference in March, and I feel confident that it will grab its fair share of well-deserved attention, if for the cover alone, which is the brainchild and masterwork of our mad genius Mr. Spitzer.   But I won't say anything more about that.  You'll just have to wait to see it in March.   For now, I'll say that we really like what we've put together for our readers, and we are eager to to show it to you.

Lagniappe 1:  I had a lot of fun participating in The Pinch magazine launch party reading last Saturday. They are good people, and it's a great journal.  It was an especially rewarding event for being able to catch up with two formers students who have settled in the Memphis area and were kind enough to come out to hear me read.  Thanks to managing editor Chris Moyer for inviting me to participate--and to submit in the first place.  When he introduced me on Saturday, Chris told the crowd that when he tweeted about my participation in the event, what he heard back was, "Is he performing live?" "Yes," he responded, "and no cover charge!"  Once again, I am mistaken for John Vanderslice, the west coast indie rock singer. (I'll have to meet this guy one day.)  As I told the group on Saturday, if they ever heard me sing, they'd gladly pay a cover charge to get me to stop.

Speaking of singers, the drive over to Memphis gave me the opportunity to listen (again) to Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1 by Jackson Browne.  The CD was released in 2005, but I only bought it in October.  Since then I've been listening to it compulsively.  Can't seem to get enough of these hauntingly stripped down versions of some of his more familiar songs.  Coming back to Arkansas, however, I had to put the dang thing away.  Too soulful!  I needed to stay awake! 

Lagniappe 2: Like many others, I am mourning the loss of Isaiah Sheffer, the founder and artistic director of public radio's Selected Shorts program.  Like thousands of others I was a dedicated fan of the Selected Shorts podcast, and I even had the opportunity to see the program recorded on stage in Chicago several years ago.  I can't count the number of fine writers it has introduced me to, writers I read regularly now and cherish.  Sheffer's life was all about bringing art to as many people as possible, and that is a life well-lived.  You can follow this link to read tributes to him composed by grateful listeners.

Lagniappe 3: You may or may not have noticed that as we approach the American holiday of Thanksgiving, various people on Facebook--that is, Americans--have been putting up daily gratitude posts.  The reception is mixed.  My British friend and colleague Garry Craig Powell,  a self-described "unsentimental, miserable old git" has just about run out of patience with all this gratitude.  Last week he excoriated  Facebookers (all in good fun, of course) for their "mawkish posts about being grateful for Jesus, their wonderful husbands, wives, children, dogs, cats and goldfish."  So far I've refrained from inflicting any of my own gratitude on the Facebook universe, but with Garry's permission I'll say a little something here.  On Wednesday, my family and I will travel to Lowell, Arkansas to celebrate the holiday with my younger brother and his family, and with my mother.  I am quite looking forward to this trip.  It's been a beautiful, but in some ways painful, semester.  It will be good to get away.   Last summer, this same group was assembled at Cobb Island, Maryland for the better part of a week.  At the time, my mother was only a few months removed from finishing up (light) chemotherapy, post-surgical treatment for ampullary cancer.  Her spirits were good, but as a lifelong very active person it was frustrating for her to be hampered by the same old bum hip that had kept her on a cane for almost two years.  For so long she had wanted to get the hip replaced--it was during a doctor's visit to consider the feasibility of the operation that the cancer was discovered--but she could not be sure if or when the doctors would clear her for the procedure.  After all, her body had been put through the very difficult whipple procedure for the cancer and, on top of that, her heart was showing new, mysterious symptoms.  Fast forward four months, my mom's cancer is still gone, her heart is better, and her hip replacement surgery is scheduled for January.  Recovery, she has been told, will not be difficult--nothing like recovering from the whipple surgery--and she is on cloud nine with anticipation.  It should be a fun Thanksgiving, and for that I am very much grateful, if in advance.



Monday, November 12, 2012

So that's finally over

5



This isn't a political blog, but it is a fairly personal one, so with your permission I think I'll spend a few personal words on the American election of last Tuesday, especially now that the very last state to report results (Florida) has done so.  Four years ago, when Mr. Obama was announced as the new president-elect, I went out on to my front porch and shouted with delight and amazement.  "You made a good decision, America," I said.  (For once, we made a good decision.)  I crossed the street and knocked on the door of a neighbor who was an early Obama supporter.  He offered me a celebration beer, and we watched all the excitement in Chicago's Grant Park.   Last Tuesday night, however, after the election was called I just went to bed, not so much excited as relieved.  Or maybe a bit of both.   The next day, I saw a Facebook post from a former student chiding both Obama and Romney supporters for placing too much hope in polticians, for expecting a politican to be a savior.  Of course, my former student is correct, but this election, to me, wasn't about finding a savior.  It was about wondering if I even knew my own country anymore.  Whether you care about politics or not, it's hard not to agree that the sitting administration in Washington sets the tone for the government and to a large extent determines the parameters of policy debates.  It became increasingly hard for me to fathom that after the eight long, difficult Bush years--with only a four year reprieve of sanity--that we would again want a president whose foreign policy would have amounted to the Return of American Arrogance, chockful of the same blockheaded decisions, ill-considered statements, and eagerness for military confrontation that characterized the Bush administration.  Is that what we really wanted?  The whole world hating us again?  Were we really about to elect a man who would gladly cut government benefits to poor and middle class people--not to reduce our federal deficit but in order to give more money to the already wealthy?  (How "conservative Christians," who generally support such policies, reconcile them with Christianity is beyond me.  Have they even read the gospels?)  Is that what poor and middle class people, many of whom are still struggling terribly, actually wanted?  Would they support such disgusting policy positions with their own votes?  I didn't understand it.   I couldn't understand it.  I didn't know what to make of this country I call home, if it was set to install such a person into office.

So I was simply relieved when the results came in last Tuesday.  I felt reassured that maybe America wasn't insane after all; that I could still call the country my own.  I even felt good for the many millions of people who voted for Mr. Romney, because I actually feel that their needs and concerns will be better addressed by the current administration than they would have been under Mr. Romney's.  They just don't realize it yet.  (One of the terrible ironies of American politics is that most of the people so vocally opposed to the supposedly horrible "Obamacare" law will actually benefit from it.)  And I got a kick at seeing the variety of legislative impulses afoot in different states.  My own very conservative state of Arkansas--in which Republicans ruled virtually every statewide election--came within a hair's breadth of approving the use of marijuana for medical purposes.   (On election night, NBC's Brian Wilson turned to a political "expert" sitting next to him and with the wryest of smiles said the line that you know he'd waiting for  hours to deliver: "There's weed all over the ballot tonight!")  Boy, are we a big and complicated nation, with so many different personalities.  Some of them actually interesting.  I just feel glad that, for this week at least, I can still call the nation mine.   I recommend that anyone reading me today follow this link to commentary by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.  It's from last Wednesday, the morning after Mr. Obama's reelection.   Maddow explains exactly what, to her, the election meant.  I am not a political animal.  I don't watch MSNBC, although many people I respect do. I don't follow the Sunday morning political talk shows or read the front page of my newspaper every single day, but I have to admit to not only liking this piece but being moved by it.   Do check it out.



A few followups to previous posts, and a tiny little publication related bit:

Followup #1:  Last week I blogged about the importance of Just Keeping Going: in running and writing.  I probably should have mentioned that not only am I out there training again on Prince Street, but I've jumped into a new novel in recent weeks.  Too early to say exactly what the heck it is, except that I think it's a comedy.  (I think.)  I've just added an Australian and a ouija board.

Followup #2: About a month ago, I blogged about the connection between cooking and writing, and I expressed some dissatisfaction about my countrymen's approach to eating.  In nonfiction class last week we had a great discussion of this very topic, due to an essay in our textbook by an author who ridicules Campbell's "Soup to Go." The author's main argument is that the company took one of the most ancient and communal kinds of food and turned it into something one is supposed to guzzle while sitting alone in one's car.   (The cannister itself was designed to fit into a car's cup holder.) Many of the students opined at exactly how bad canned soup is--one had even tried this particular product and found it inedible.  This, in turn, made me wonder outloud if there is a whole stratum of Americans who have never actually tasted Real Food (i.e., made from scratch by one person for another), who have literally no idea how much better Real Food tastes and is.   Unfortunately,  I do think this stratum is actual.  How else to explain the ever expanding numbers of fast food  outlets and varieties of prepackaged, on the go, because-we're-too-busy-to-spend-as-much-ten-minutes-on what-we-stick-in-our-mouths products.  (You can even buy pre-made, vaccum-sealed peanut and jelly sandwiches, for heaven's sake.  This is unspeakably stupid.)  My new pet theory as to why Americans are obese: The food we eat is such Not Real Food, that to derive any pleasure from it we have to consume it in great quantity.

Tiny little publication related bit:  A bizarre, comic story of mine--it's formatted as a pretend shopping list of someone who is being held captive after being kidnapped from a superstore--was published recently in the print journal The Pinch, published out of the University of Memphis.  One of the editors contacted me last week and invited me to read at their launch party this coming Friday.  It certainly is nice to be asked, so I'll probably be making that two-and-a-half hour drive Friday afternoon.  Too often the journals I publish in are located so far away that there's no way I can make their launch parties.  I'm happy for this exception.  Thanks, The Pinch.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Another one down

2


Just over a week ago, for the fifth year in a row, I ran the Soaring Wings Half-Marathon.  It raises money for a good cause, an institution that takes in troubled kids and tries to give them structure; it also is quite a challenging course and the only race of its distance in my hometown. I can't not do it.  And I'm happy to report that for the fifth year in a row, I met my goal: to finish in under two hours.  I even ran faster this year than last!  (Okay, so it was only 35 seconds faster, but 35 seconds is 35 seconds!)  I'm also happy to report that I managed to finish in the top 25% or so, better than usual for me.  This is not to suggest I am a fast runner.  No one's ever accused me of that.  Fact is, I don't have a natural talent for speed.  What I have, instead, is a talent for Keeping Going.  Maybe talent is the wrong word to use here.  Let's say a disposition--or simple thickheadedness.   Which is why the longer the race, the better I tend to do relative to other participants.  The longer the race, the more attrition and exhaustion sets in.  Inevitably there are runners who don't train well enough for the distance, or who set out in too fast a pace, or whose bodies just aren't up for it that day.  You see them walking along the side of the course, hands on hips, head bowed, their faces washed in pain and frustration.  Then there are those who simply have the mid-to-late race realization that a) This hurts, and b) I am doing this to myself voluntarily, and thus c) Why don't I just stop? Oh, I can sympathize, believe me.  I don't think there's any normal mortal who's ever run a marathon or half-marathon (well, especially a marathon) who hasn't had those thoughts.  But so far at least, I've never listened to them.  If I start the thing, I'm going to finish it.  You just keep going.


I'm set to teach a course next semester called Novel Writing Workshop.  The semester's theme and the semester's process will be: Keep Going.  I won't be expecting masterpieces from my students, just finished drafts.  That is, drafts of novels that meet the word count requirement I set for them.  They won't have time for existential crises related to writing because they will have to get a certain number of words down each week.  And the next week.  And the next.  I'm convinced, after several years of teaching, including teaching some truly gifted people, that what keeps students from achieving their dreams of becoming novelists isn't a lack of talent or a lack of good ideas or any sudden short circuiting of their imaginations, or even the business of life; what stops them is an inability to just keep going.  Keep going despite the fact that you have other schoolwork to do or your job is calling, despite the fact that you're not sure anymore where your damn book is headed, despite the fact that you don't even like your characters anymore, despite the fact that you suspect this just might be the dumbest novel ever, despite the fact that your favorite movie is on tv or your laundry needs folding or your best friend just suggested dinner out or maybe a weekend romp to Fayetteville.  Despite the fact that far from feeling inspired you'd rather be doing anything else than sitting in front of a computer hacking at your amateurish story.  Yes, well.  Welcome to the writing life.  My advice to my students next semester?  Keep going.  You can't know what you have until it's actually done.  Then you can curse at it all you want.  Until then, under threat of a F grade, don't you dare stop.   (Here's the thing, though: It may actually be a lot better than you think.)


Learning to write even when you don't feel like it, learning to see every writing session as just another one down, another day's work done, may be the hardest but most necessarly lesson for any student writer.  I don't know about you, but I've never heard a writer on the radio say, "I only write when I'm inspired," or, worse, "I can't write if I'm not inspired."  I've never heard one of the writers who visit my campus say that.  Never.  What I hear writers say is that they try to make writing a ritual, something as normal to the process of their day as brewing their morning coffee or brushing their teeth.  When I was an undergraduate, one teacher insisted that not only should we write everyday but that we should write at the same hour everyday.  Over time, her theory went, your body will get used to being creative at that given hour.  It will become easier and easier to slip back into your story, even if just before sitting down at your desk your mind is AWOL, three thousand miles away, or simply stressing over the electric bill.  This makes perfectly good sense to me now; and given that most people--like most animals--are more habitualistic than they realize or care to admit, Making Writing a Habit is the single most useful way to Keep Going.




A last thought: You can't get too taken up in your good days either, those times when you put down a great scene or a great paragraph or a great chapter.  Okay, so pat yourself on the back, give yourself whatever compliments you need, but finally that day's work--or that year's work--is just another day down.  When the next day comes, you have to be ready to work then too.  Keep Going, remember?  I recall something another teacher of mine said.  This was years later, in graduate school.  He said that it's really hard to be too proud of a book you've just published, because by the time the book comes out and you start on a book tour, reading excerpts to admiring audiences, six months to a year has passed since the thing was finished.  Since then you've started your next book, and what's on your mind isn't how great is the book you've just published but all the problems you're having with your current one.  He described this as a kind of useful humility.   Yes, it is that, but it's also a revelation of a working writer's credo: Every project you successfully complete is just another one down.  And then it's on to the next.

After my better than expected showing in the Soaring Wings Half, I gave myself the next day off, but on Monday morning I was out there on Prince Street, shuffling--very sorely--through my usual daily trek.  Saturday's race was down; but there was always next year's to prepare for.   I had to get going.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The limits of politics

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As you might imagine, with just over a week before the presidential election in the United States, politics is everywhere: polls and more polls, reports on the campaigns, yard signs, television ads, accusations from one group leveled at another, pleas from this organization or that for donations to help them fight the good fight.  It's hard to avoid, and to an extent--of course--one shouldn't avoid it.  After the debacle of 2000, no one can reasonably argue that elections don't matter.  Certainly this one matters, when the possible winner and his running mate espouse economic principles of the robber barons and would like to return the U.S. to that age--as if that worked out well the first time.   Of course it bothers me that at least 50% of the public, almost none of whom will ever be robber barons, appear set to vote for a man who will immediately begin to work against their interests.  (I think only in America could this happen.)  And yes, I make my jokes about having to move to France if Mr. Romney wins.  (Jokes?)  And yes, I laugh at or cheer various anti-Republican pictures or messages that come to me via Facebook; and yes I've given money to the Democrats; and yes, of course, I'll vote.  At the same time I find myself caring only so much.  I find myself switching the radio to another station when the reports come in; I find myself not reading the latest from the campaigns in my daily newspaper.  I find--because I've always found this to be true--that when I am most engaged, most animated, and most angry about a political issue, I am engaging only the outermost rind of my mind, not the inner place.  Not the place where I live.


When I first got out of college and was living in the Washington, DC area, I tried, like so many people, to find a job on Capitol Hill.  This was Washington, after all.  Jobs on the Hill were considered sexy.  That's why everyone wanted them.  I went around to a few Senate and House offices, put in some resumes, gave what might have sounded like an honest effort but really wasn't.  Because my heart wasn't in it.  I suppose I would have taken a job if one had been offered, but I knew what a long shot that was.  And those odds didn't actually bother me.  I knew, in the end, that I needed to go to art.  After all, it was the only thing I cared about. There was a reason I majored in English and not journalism in college.  There was a reason I filled out my electives with courses like Art History and Theatre History and Ethnomusicology.  These were the disciplines I cherished, the kinds of learning I respected.  And if you put me on the spot I would have to admit that what I actually think, right now, is this: 99.9% of what gets debated on Captiol Hill and around the country in various statehouses, what fills the pages of newspapers and the chattering air time of television talk shows and the screens of political bloggers, finally in the deepest sense does not matter.  In the deepest sense, art matters a lot more.  It matters more than anything.  In the end, art influences and determines a culture more than anything else.  Art is the culture.  Human history, for me, is one great big wheel that turns on the energy of art.  So for me, if that poem does not get written, or that song is not composed, or that film isn't made, or that sculpture is not completed, the consequences for society are far greater than if this or that bill passes; even if the poem or song or movie or sculpture is created by an unknown person who remains unknown, along with his or her piece of art.  The making of art matters that much.  This all might sound like mystical gibberish, but it's what I really believe.  I think, as an artist, I have no choice but to believe it.  But here's the thing: It's not a choice.  It's not what I choose to believe; it's what I do believe.


One thing I noticed as I researched my Van Gogh novel, and what I've thought about since I finished it, is how little Van Gogh commented on, or seemed to care about, the political climate of his day.  Such concerns almost never come up in his letters.  To learn about the hot political issues of Van Gogh's time one needs to abandon Van Gogh altogether.  I didn't think about such issues when I composed the book and, to my occasional alarm, do not mention them at all in the novel.   But  maybe this isn't so surprising.  After all, over the course of his thirty-seven years, Van Gogh lived in four different countries and was never in his heart a citizen of any of them.  He never felt embedded enough to see their political causes as his own.  He was always passing through and on to a greater mission.  The mission?  Well, his first career out of school was art dealing.  But this was less a personal mission than an aspect of his family's legacy; it was not a career he felt passionate about and against which he quickly soured.  His first real mission in life, few people know, was to become a minister like his father.  Say what you will about Van Gogh's epilepsy (as most now define his condition) or his "craziness" (as others put it more crudely), when you read his biography what comes across is a kind of Asperger Syndrome fixation on One Thing, and an Asperger-like inability to read emotional clues, especially the clues that might get in the way of the One Thing.  And the One Thing was never political in nature; such matters were simply off his radar of concern.  For a time, as I mentioned, the One Thing was to become a minister.  After that dream rather painfully crashed to death in the mining region of Belgium, he decided on a different and--for him--better One Thing: to become an artist.  If not for his ability to fixate ferociously on a goal, to work doggedly at that goal whatever the consequences, Van Gogh would never have become Van Gogh, and we would not have the paintings that we enjoy today.  The man was simply not blessed with an immense amount of natural talent.  What he was blessed with was an unprecedented willingness to work and a fixation on his mission.   It was this and not his "craziness" that made him brilliant.




He had a tendency to Asperger-like fixation when it came to woman too.  What I mean by that is that he apparently would decide a certain woman was The One and would henceforth proceed to ignore every single clue she sent him that said the opposite.  A few times in his life he tried to impose his romantic will upon the women he fell for.  He once even claimed that it didn't matter if a certain woman loved him, because he had more than enough love to make up for what she lacked.  Together, that is, they still added up to a 100% worth of love.  Now this is quite a pathetic argument, and about as unsuccessful in practice as you can imagine.  If he was less dogmatic in temperament, he would have understood that one cannot argue a person who does not love you into love.  It's not a matter of intellectual debate.  (Which is not to say, of course, that love is not a matter of mind.  In fact, I think of love as a profoundest meeting of minds, that certain feeling that you and another person share one mind.)  I don't think Van Gogh ever felt such love for anyone.  What he felt was obsession.  Which is why, despite his genuine talent for friendship, he never enjoyed a successful romantic relationship.  By the time he lived in Arles, he had long since given up on the possibilty of marrying--or enjoying any kind of exclusive relationship with a woman.  He even stopped visiting prostitutes because--so he reported--he had become impotent.  (This might, however, have been partly due to his peculiar fascination with Paul Gauguin.  Around the time of Van Gogh's famous breakdown in December 1888, Gauguin had become the One Thing.  And many commentators, with reason, read homoerotic language into the letters he wrote to and about the man.)

So Van Gogh's Asperger qualities--and I apologize if I seem to be using the term loosely--came with good and bad.  It ruined his chances with women.  But it also made him impervious to, and mostly ignorant of, the poltical debates of his day.  And that, as it turned out, was a blessing.  Freed from the many distractions and disheartening pettiness of civil affairs, he lived not in the rind of his mind but in its core.  And from out of that place came what really mattered.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Compliments and characters

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A seemingly casual question emailed to the Writing Department by one of our resident linguists set the building afire yesterday with observations and anecdotes.  It is thought, the linguist said, that historically women have been valued for their appearance and men for their performance.  She wondered aloud, because a class of hers just had, as to whether this was still true today.  When you get compliments from your students or co-workers, are they more typically about matters of appearance or performance?  Simple enough question, with a sufficiently mixed response.  One male faculty member said, "Well I so rarely get complimented on anything that I don't think I can count in either category." I had to laugh at that.  Two female faculty members said that their compliments run about 50/50; but, of course, one of them pointed out, if the students have any sense of decorum at all they should know not to say anything about a professor's appearance.  I said that given my nonexistent fashion sense I don't typically get appearance compliments; more likely it's compliments on how this or that class goes, or about something I wrote.   One guy recalled that women sometimes say they wish they had hair as full-bodied as his rather exuberant ponytail.   One woman expressed relief that she is no longer told to smile by passersby in the hallway.   Eventually this all lead to a series of gratuitious, and rather humorous, compliments for each other.


Going right from one of these discussions into an afternoon classroom, I decided to raise the question to my class.  When you get complimented, what are you complimented for: appearance or performance?  Responses were mixed.  One female student told a story about a preschool class in which all the boys and girls were required to compliment each other once a day.  And you couldn't repeat someone else's compliment to a person.  You had to think of an original one yourself.  (What a great lesson--not only in observation and intuiton but in composing!)  The few male students in the room basically complained about the fact that no one compliments their looks.  The female student spoke up again, complaining about the behavior of men in bars (and virtually everywhere else).  "Why do guys think that just because a woman leaves her house, they can all surround her?"  She's afraid to even go to the bathroom at bars, she said, given the array of men that lingering and waiting for women to come out.  We worked through a few related topics: e.g., the perseverance of the phenomenon of catcalls, especially the driveby kind.  Why would you do that, I asked one guy.  "Well," he said, "because you know you can get away fast!"  No, I explained, you don't understand.  I'm not saying why are you able to do it, but why would you want to do it in the first place?  Surely, you don't think a woman is flattered by that?  He seemed perplexed.  One male student opined that men make hit-and-run catcalls because they would like to bestow a compliment on a woman but basically are too scared to do so directly.  The catcall allows them to express their enchantment at her beauty without getting caught.  Well, I said, that sounds downright pathological.   I don't think he saw my point.  Finally, we got to a subject that I think underscored all the day's questions, from the very first email sent around by our linguist to my student's complaints about catcalls.   Is it possible, I asked, for a woman to get tired of being complimented only for her appearance; that is, wouldn't an attractive woman finally get depressed at being seen as nothing but a pretty face while the rest of who she is gets ignored?  Yes, one girl intoned, without hesitation.  Two other girls in class disagreed.   Said one, "I'd never get tired at being complimented about my appearance."


It was a fun, quick, light discussion, but it put me in mind of a complaint I read from one writer a couple of years ago.   In an article in the AWP Writer's Chronicle, she pointed out that the female protagonists in short stories and novels--especially stories and novels written by men, but not only in those--are almost inevitably presented as being beautiful, as if this is a requirement for virtue and for esteem.  Not just pretty, mind you.  Not just "interesting looking," but obviously beautiful.  The writer pointed out what a cliche this was, first of all; but worse than that, it suggests that women who are less than staggeringly attractive can't possibly ever be someone's love interest or the center of a story.  Why not be a more clever, more disciplined writer and develop a more realitstic, more nuanced vision of your female characters, to say nothing of women generally?  Instead of making your protagonist simply Hollywood beautiful, give her a unique and idiosyncratic feature, something that is truly her own.  This all seemed like very good commonsensical advice to me, and made me wonder if at times I was guilty of this same sloppy approach, which is prevalent not just in pulp historical romances but to an extent in historical fiction generally, and not just in historical fiction but in all fiction generally.  Not that my heroines have ever been cardboard cut-outs--they weren't; not ever--but it occurred to me that I could probably put more work into making them as idosyncratic as possible, as idiosyncratic in appearance as they were, for me, in personality.  I brought this issue to the attention of one fiction writing class--which I should say was especially guilty that semester of this particular kind of sloppiness--and urged them to be a bit more broad-minded about their protagonists.  The reaction from a couple of male students was automatic and unwavering.  No way.  It's my story, and I'm going to make the woman beautiful.   Yes, of course, I said, it's your story; but how about making your story more artful; maybe more realistic? No, I want a beautiful woman as my protagonist.   I should have fought harder on the point, but I didn't.   I would now.  I wish they had been in class today to hear our discussion about compliments.   But then again, they might have been among those in the trucks bestowing driveby catcalls.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Learning about Hilary

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No, not that Hillary, which is spelled differently anyway.  There's a probing profile in the most recent New Yorker magazine of English novelist Hilary Mantel, who is doing quite well for herself since she won the 2009 Man-Booker prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall.  I must shamefully admit that I have not yet read Wolf Hall--that is, until I started it yesterday. (So far so good.)  The profile, authored by Larissa MacFarquhar, is chock full of fascinating information about, and insights from, Mantel as well as some rather pointed commentary about historical fiction.  There's too much of interest in the profile to cover in one little ol' blog post, so go get the magazine and read it.  (Maybe you have already.)  But a couple things really stood out for me that I'd like to discuss.   First, MacFarquhar provides this rather loaded statement early in the article: "These days the historical novel is not quite respectable.  It has difficulty distinguishing itself from its easy sister the historical romance.  It is thought to involve irritating ways of talking, or excessive descriptions of clothes.  The past, in fiction, has more prestige than the future, but as with the future, its prestige declines with its distance from the present."  Really?  Really?  Are literary opinions really as myopic as that?  After Atonement and Girl with a Pearl Earring and Quiet Americans and The Book of Salt and Memoirs of a Geisha and Oscar and Lucinda and Cold Mountain and Ragtime?  Even after Wolf Hall itself and its followup Bring Up the Bodies, which won--just five days ago--the 2012 Man-Booker Prize?  (This is the first time, by the way, that both a novel and its sequel have won the award.  Kind of like the Godfather movies.)

Maybe so.  I hate to say it, but maybe it's so.  After all, Mantel enjoyed a long career as writer of mostly contemporary realist novels before she started Wolf Hall.  And the reason she wrote mostly contemporary realist novels was because her very first fictional project, a historical novel set in the French Revolution, something she labored over painstakingly and lovingly for four years, was rejected out of hand by agents and publishers.  As in without even reading it.  As in without reading past the first sentence of her query letter.  In the profile, Mantel tells a horrible if telling story: "'I wrote a letter to an agent saying would you look at my book, it's about the French Revolution, it's not a historical romance, and the letter came back saying, we do not take historical romances. . . They literally could not read my letter, because of the expectations surrounding the words 'French Revolution'--that it was bound to be about ladies with high hair.'"  I've encountered the same blind prejudice, and much more recently than 1979, when Manel's first book was so soundly beaten back.  Just weeks ago, I received a rejection letter in the mail from a magazine that is expressly commited to longer stories.  The long short story may be the hardest fictional form to publish these days, so it's disheartening when one of the few periodicals seriously devoted to the form--a form which may be my favorite--delivers a laundry list of what it will and will not accept in terms of content.  One thing it will not accept, the rejection slip explained, is "genre fiction"; and under the many kinds of fiction listed as "genre" there was "historical."  Oh, really?  So if I write a serious story about characters I care about and set it in the present, that's okay.  But if I write a serious story about characters I care about and set it in the past it becomes "genre fiction"?  Since when is human experience a "genre"?  I have never in my whole career ever thought of myself as writing genre fiction, even when I wrote a novel that includes as part of its reality the idea of humanity being watched by an extraterrestrial race.  (No, I'm not crazy, and, yes, it's actually a very serious book.  Think of it as literary realism with aliens.)

This gets to the unique double nature of historical fiction, its "unstable reputation," as MacFarquhar puts it.  Historical fiction is both a means of writing pulp and of getting to the most serious psychological realities of some of the most fascinating people and periods of the past.  I just don't understand why a two-headed creature should so constantly be defined by only one of its heads.  Especially by those who should know better.

Side notes: #1 The article on Mantel got me thinking of various other matters, related and unrelated to the author herself.  One interesting tidbit that comes up in the profile is that prior to composing Wolf Hall, Mantel's favorite of her own novels was The Giant, O'Brien, a mythological treatment of Ireland.   I am not one to ever tell an author (not even one of my students; especially not one of my students) as to where his or her imagination is "allowed" to go, but I have to admit to a certain disappointed sigh when I read Mantel's commentary on her book.  I think Ireland has been mythologized by the English quite enough already, thank you.

#2 For historical fiction's sake, to say nothing of Mantel's, I'm glad that Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have earned such acclaim.  I hope the same is true of the third book in the trilogy, upon which she is currently working.  But I can't help but notice--on both sides of the Atlantic, but maybe especially on our side--an enduring fascination with Englands that no longer exist, whether that be Arthurian England, the England of feudal castles, the England of the Tudors, the England of the Enlightenment, Victorian and Edwardian England, the England of E.M. Forster, or the England of the great manor houses, those institutions that so famously came to an end not long after World War I.   In short, the England of costumes and of Empire.  Something about this has long pestered at me.  As much as I love Shakespeare and the literature of his contemporaries; as much as I love eighteenth century novels; as much as I love Austen and George Eliot and the Brontes and Wordsworth; as much as I was charmed by those Merchant-Ivory period films in the 1980s and 90s; as much as I think television shows like Downton Abbey are craftily written and brilliantly acted (and probably a hell of a lot of fun to be involved with), I hope we can all recognize that it's a good thing that the world depicted in such films and shows is gone.


It's been a while since I spent a serious stretch of days in England--2006 really--but when I go there I'm always struck by the same idea: England's best days aren't back then; they're right now.  This is not to underestimate the fiscal difficulties the country has recently suffered through.  I am well aware of such difficulites--we started them!  But England ranks not only as the leader of the EU but as one of the leading socialist democracies in the world; arguably the leading socialist democracy that is also significantly mulit-cultural.  In the various quality-of-life and happiness surveys that get released periodically, the Scandinavian countries inevitably come out on top.  But they are relatively small and relatively homogeneous entities.  As an American, I tend to think that heterogeneity is valuable on principle, something to aspire to whatever its drawbacks.  In recent decades, England has faced--and met--the extraordinary challenge of remaining both heterogeneous and socialist.  It's a country from which the United States could learn a lot--if we could ever get over the seductive lie that being American always means being Better.  It's a country in which, right now, probably the highest percentage of its citizens ever enjoy a passably comfortably life and a passably good education--a far higher number than under the Tudors, at least.   That is no small feat.  It is--and should be--a source of national pride.  And it's why I'm glad that for every Merchant-Ivory costume drama or The Tudors or Merlin there's a Four Weddings and a Funeral or a Love Actually to remind Americans that there happens to be a vibrant England of NOW.  I'll take that England over Forster's anyday.  Except you can keep the rain.